de Sousa on Emotional Truth

Ronald de Sousa‘s “Emotional Truth” seeks to expand the realm of truth from its restriction to belief and belief-like states to include emotions and emotional states. On DeSousa’s view, an emotion can be “true”, or “false”, but not in the sense of being “flat-out” true or false, rather in some matter of degree. To use one of DeSousa’s favorite distinctions: whereas the truth of beliefs or belief-like states is “digital” (something is either true or not true), he contends that the truth of emotional states is analogue. Analogue truth is the realm of “more or less”; we feel that something is true not (generally) with certainty, but with degrees of confidence. Aside from the analogue/digital difference, emotional truth differs from the truth of beliefs in that its satisfaction conditions are not semantic, but evaluative:

Emotional truth, then, refers not to semantic satisfaction, but to success. I follow widespread practice in saying that fear’s assessment of p or t as dangerous consist in some sort of evaluation of p or t. Success is tied to the correctness of that evaluation.

We might also remark that emotional truth is less “cognitive” than epistemic truth – the truth of an emotion is not simply “in my head”, but in my engagement with the world  (“Success” refers to transformations which really happen to me, resulting from the play of the relation between the emotional states I bring to the world and how the world fulfills them or fails to fulfill what they intend).

The claim I wish to make here is to argue that “emotional truth” in DeSousa’s analysis is taking up the same theoretical space as Heidegger fills with the notion of truth as “unconcealing” or “revealing” – as the wider circle which grounds and makes possible traditional truth as correctness or correspondence:

To say that a statement is true means that it discovers the beings in themselves. It asserts, it shows, it lets beings “be seen” (apophansis) in their discoveredness. The being true (truth) of the statement must be understood as discovering. Thus, truth by no means has the structure of an agreement between knowing and the object in the sense of a corresponding of one being (subject) to another (object). (Being and Time, German pagination 218-19)

According to Heidegger, truth as disclosedness, (alithea, literally un-covering-up) is the basis for our modern understanding of truth as “the agreement between things objectively present” (225). Despite many reader’s perceptions that Heidegger is “against” traditional theories of truth, his framework actually allows for both to co-exist. The negative emotion towards traditional truth has a real motivation, however – from the fact that this conceals the originary nature of truth, and obscures the question of the meaning of being in general. Since correspondance truth buries over the nature of truth in general, we come to understand truth as agreement between objectively present innerworldly things, and therefore to assume that Being itself is simply objective presence (225).

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that DeSousa is in any way taking up the Heideggerian project. I happen to know that he does not think highly of Being and Time – and specifically that all of its emotional phenomenology can be found better expressed in the great works of Russian literature. However, in his notion of “emotional” truth, there is something like a turn being made towards the wider conception of truth as disclosedness. And this is certainly a good thing, because it’s true: we have to be aware of proposition before we can even make a decision about its truth. If we are not concerned, if we have no emotional state whatsoever towards a proposition, we will not be paying attention to it, and no truth – understood either way – will take place.

The easiest way to show the simple necessity of concern (what Heidegger calls Sorge, “care”) is to cite a famous (well, at least I think it’s famous) passage from Robert Pirsig’s cult classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”:

The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine’s always your own mind. There isn’t any other test.

DeWeese asks, “What if the machine is wrong and I feel peaceful about it?”


I reply, “That’s self-contradictory. If you really don’t care you aren’t going to know it’s wrong. The thought’ll never occur to you. The act of pronouncing it wrong’s a form of caring.”

I add, “What’s more common is that you feel unpeaceful even if it’s right, and I tink that’s the actual case here. In this case, if you’re worried, it isn’t right. That means it isn’t checked out thoroughly enough. In any industrial situation a machine that isn’t checked out is a ‘down’ machine and can’t be used even though it may work perfectly….”(146)

In philosophical language: being open towards a subject is always a pre-supposed condition for cognition of it, and therefore for any knowledge concerning it (i.e. true propositions). The concern, which is at base emotive, for the machine is the basis for evaluation and the starting point for traditional truth seeking behavior – checking it out thoroughly enough, checking to see if observations made of the machine fit with specified tolerances, replacement intervals, appropriate wear patterns, etc.

What is remarkable about Pirsig’s passage is that it gives us a link, without having to understand Heidegger, between the truth of concern (disclosedness, or as I am contending – emotional truth), and scientific, objective truth which deals in propositions and semantic satisfaction. But we should also think the analysis in the opposite direction – can we not reveal how traditional truth (agreement between the semantic content of a proposition and the actual existing world) relies on something emotive, intuitive, a form of prior disclosure? This can be accomplished by examining the standard relationship a subject bears towards his believed to be true beliefs: certainty. Traditional truth certainly has the characteristic of certainty, and this imbues beliefs with a digital, binary character: I either am certain of something, or I am not certain of it.  Certainty hates partiality: for me to be certain of the truth of a proposition means to have given up analogue understanding of it. But, this on/off truth is always at the same time based on some analogue “feel” of how certain I am! In other words, partiality loves certainty – but only to some definite degree. For example, if you ask me first for the set of beliefs I am certain of, and then you ask me to remove all the claims I have made which i would not stake my life on – the differential are claims about which I have an intuitive “feel” of certainty, but where that “feel” is not strong enough to stake your life on it.

The partiality of certainty is further complicated when we recognize that certainty as an expression is performative and subject to social conventions, pressures, etc…  For instance, there are many situations where I would not assent to the belief that armed resistance is at times an effective and legitimate form of struggle. This does not merely mean that in some contexts I would “lie” – rather I would reformulate the way I put my position forward such that I can give an overall coherent and consistent, and good (I hope) , political analysis. I would try to give the best political analysis I could given the veiled threats – and the output of this analysis isn’t “truth” anyway – but change, so the bar is usefulness not correctness. I might have a feeling of certainty towards what is the most useful analysis – but this certainty, in its “feel”, will be analogue – although the way I present it is digital (I argue my case against others, say they are wrong – even though in actuality I might not be sure who is right).

I think that traditional truth (i.e. the correspondence theory of truth), is one of those false but useful forms of thought which can be placed alongside the idea of an object which is not a possible object of experience for me. Like subject-neutral existents, digital belief features prominently in everyday language and it would be difficult to go around interacting with others, especially in an analytic philosophy class, without purporting to hold (which includes purporting to oneself) some digital beliefs.

There are problems with this rapprochement avec Heidegger and DeSousa – whereas Heidegger’s work is resolutely and consistently in opposition and deconstruction of traditional “subjectivity”, DeSousa’s emotional-truth remains very much grounded “in the subject”. There is always a “believer” who bears towards the world with propositions, perceptions and emotional states. The subject is not an interpolation of an originary engagement or appropriating event – the “believer” or “feeler” is always logically prior to the particular bearing towards the world by way of propositions, perceptions or emotions. For Heidegger, the question of the subject is not about pre-supposing some notion of personhood to account for the experiences we have, but rather to describe the very notion of “personhood” as something which arises out of actual experience. So, in Being and Time at least, Heidegger’s base term for the being that we ourselves are is simply “there-being” (dasein), which doesn’t pre-suppose anything about the continuing identity of a meaningful self – but rather lays the open theoretical groundwork upon which one could actually grasp how we get the idea of ourselves as continuing across time, as social, as “individual” etc… And this deconstruction of subjectivity is intimately involved with Heidegger’s theory of truth – for Heidegger truth is not primordially about a relation between to things, but rather the open clearing which makes any showing, any relating possible at all. Truth is essentially neither on the subject side, the object side, or in the relation between object and subject  – how could this be since the very coming into relation of object and subject pre-supposes truth! Truth as the clearing is an occurrence in the “event to appropriation” which precedes the theoretical breakdown into subject and object. If DeSousa wants to sit emotional truth aside theoretical truth, positing the subject in both cases as prior to the event of truth, then any form of bringing him together with Heidegger is fun, but superficial and ultimately specious. However, DeSousa’s insistence on gaining “objectivity” for emotional truth may betray his humanist leanings – the logic of emotional truth may inevitably lead to a kind of situationalism which problematizes belief in prior, stable subjects:

Take, for example, the classic thought experiment in Mencius: you see a child about to fall into a well, and your apprehension of the situation immediately moves you, and you want to save the child. In this instance, what is apprehended is the need to intervene. Or better it is the nature of the total situation, in which the need to intervene roughly sums up the supervenient valence. Yet it is not impossible to witness the scene without being moved thus. Anyone whose experience lacks the appropriate valence, however, may be said to have an objectively false emotion.

The “objectivity” of an emotional belief is saved by installing it as a supervenient characteristic of situations themselves. The truth, the correct response, the right intervention – is literally in the situation. That does not mean it is in the world, in a world-without-me sort of way – one salient property of the supervening “need to intervene” is my very proximity to the well! Therefore, the subject is not merely an external examiner of a radically objective situation, nor is the response of rescuing the child merely the projection of a value-laden subject. Value is perceived, and that act of perception is literally an unpacking of an open clearing which is made up of the intersubjectivity of subject and object.

The decline of the dominance of the theoretical over everyday comportment, along with the dismissal of overly simplistic Mind/World divisions is, perhaps unsurprisingly, consistent with popular reductions of the great divide between Heidegger and (some) analytic philosophy. However, since the actual divide between those who study different philosophical traditions is primarily emotional (it has the characteristic of feud – and it is based on a real history of oppression and expulsion – see John McCumber’s “Time in the Ditch”), this kind of theoretical detente remains less crucial than being genuinely friendly and open with fellow philosophers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s